In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we read a litany of Biblical figures who accomplished impressive feats by their faith. Noah, “being warned of God of things not seen as yet…prepared an ark” (Hebrews 11:7); Abraham “obeyed” (11:8); Moses, by his faith, “forsook Egypt” (11:27), “kept the passover” (11:28), and “passed through the Red sea as by dry land” (11:29). The author of the epistle also describes many others who endured the shame and scourging of the world, remaining faithful in the face of often deadly opposition. These, we are told, had not “received the promises” but had “seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them” (Hebrews 11:13). Indeed, the faithful in the Biblical record were not motivated by an empirical knowledge of divine truth; rather, they had been persuaded of divine truth and lived their lives trusting in the promises of God.
Faith must be, as the Epistle to the Hebrews suggests, a matter of persuasion. Because agency is central to God’s plan for us, His children, faith can never come to us by compulsory means (see 2 Nephi 2:26). I take that to mean that we can never arrive at faith in the same that way we might arrive at mathematical knowledge (by logical proofs) or scientific understanding (by sensory observation of physical phenomena). Whereas much of our working knowledge comes by rational, empirical means, faith is rooted in an entirely different epistemology—not one of proof, but of persuasion.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). In matters of faith, then, we do not have tangible access to God, to heaven, or to anything like that. We do not see God, but, as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches, we may see evidence of God—in a positive change in someone’s life, in a sense of identity and purpose brought on by activity in a church, in a comforting answer to a heartfelt prayer. It is then up to us to decide whether that evidence is sufficient to sustain our belief, our faith. When we are persuaded by faith, we have accepted the “evidence of things not seen” as sufficient, sufficient to sustain our belief in the unseen.
In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma is engaged in a debate with the antagonistic Korihor, a man who denies the existence of God, “a being,” he claims, “who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be” (Alma 40:28). Korihor’s complaints are rooted in an insistence on proof, on a faith that is compulsory in the way that a geometric proof’s conclusion is compulsory. However, Alma, understanding the true nature of faith as a product of persuasion rather than of proof, responds: “I have all things as a testimony that these things are true” (40:41), going on to say, “The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (40:44).
Unlike Korihor, Alma was willing to recognize the testimony of the scriptures and the wonders of creation as evidence of an unseen Creator. Alma allowed himself to be persuaded by that evidence, and, being thus persuaded, he was able to accomplish great things with his resulting faith (see Ether 12:13).
But why bring up the persuasion-based nature of faith at all? For two reasons. The first is in an effort to promote a more productive dialogue. I’ve heard and participated in many conversations where faith is dismissed because it lacks “evidence” of the empirical sort. But faith is not rooted in the same epistemology as the sciences. To ask a person of faith to provide physical “proof” of the things they believe would be like asking an astronomer to accept a geocentric model of the universe because it’s the one that resonates most with your experience. In either case, the gesture betrays a total disregard for each respective epistemology. Science does not seek establish truth through personal experience; faith does not seek establish truth through physical observation.
But, perhaps more importantly, I bring this difference of epistemology up for the benefit of those who could believe, who want to believe, but who don’t because they’re waiting for it to “click,” to suddenly make sense in a way that they could never doubt or disagree with. Because faith comes by persuasion, such an expectation is an unrealistic one, one that misapprehends the true nature of belief. Faith is always a choice. Persuasion only works when the audience decides to be persuaded, to accept the claims and evidence as being enough to sway their attitudes and actions. It’s unrealistic to expect your faith to come to you in the way that trigonometry or geology come to you—as an irrefutable proof or incontrovertible evidence. Faith comes by lived experience and by a willingness to see all things as evidence of the divine.
Not too long ago, I distrusted my faith because it didn’t seem scientific enough—and because some really smart people were voicing some very scientifically valid objections to faith in general. But as I worked to understand what I believed and why I believed it, I came to the realization that those smart objectors were missing the point. They were holding faith to irrelevant standards—as irrelevant as holding a lab report to poetic standards of syntax and imagery (or as holding a poem to scientific standards of replicability or statistical significance). I chose then to be persuaded by faith, to see the realities of the world as evidence of unseen truths. It’s unrealistic to wait for faith to come in a form that makes disbelief impossible (it probably never will). Instead, we can accept the evidence as enough and carry on in faith. I have been persuaded. And that faith which has persuaded me has also enriched and enlivened by experience, filling my life with a joy and purpose that I could not have found otherwise.